Thursday, May 6, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Scrooge (1951)

"Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool with no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with, all these years?"

Does it seems a little odd to be writing about this film in the middle of spring? Possibly, but Leonard Maltin once declared that Brian Desmond Hurst's 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was far too good to only watch at Christmastime--and he was absolutely correct. Far beyond your typical seasonal heartwarmer, Scrooge is nothing short of a timeless masterpiece.

It's also a film that is nearer and dearer to my heart than almost any other. For as long as I can remember, I have been watching it each and every year in December, and it's very possible I've seen it more times than any other motion picture. I can recite nearly every piece of Noel Langley's adapted screenplay by heart, drawing as it does quite faithfully from Dickens' original text. Its characters, from Kathleen Harrison's shrill yet endearing Mrs. Dilber to Ernest Thesiger's grimly hilarious undertaker, are like old friends I've known my whole life.

The very sound of Richard Addinsell's unmistakable score can instantly put me in a mood, and conjure up tangible, unshakable memories. No other adaptation of the classic Christmas tale even comes remotely close to the greatness of this one--in fact, quite honestly, although some are quite good, it almost feels like a pointless endeavor to watch any other when Hurst nailed it so perfectly in every way.

Why does it work so well? More than any other reason, the explanation lies in its lead actor: Alistair Sim in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge--a revered British actor interpreting one of literature's most well-known characters, and somehow managing to make him a real, textured, living, breathing human. Unlike other versions, Scrooge here does not come off as an irredeemable soulless wretch whose transformation seems forced and trite; nor does he either seem like a really nice guy only pretending to be mean.

Rather, Sim's Scrooge contains both aspects equally, balancing them out in such a way that we buy him completely as the unfeeling skinflint, and rejoice with him in his later redemption, which is pulled off so expertly that it can still give me chills a third of a century after the first time I witnessed it. His performance imbues the film with heart, yet without schmaltz; more importantly than anything else, he is authentic.

Dickens' message of hope and joy is brought to life in a manner which somehow avoids both sentimentality and cynicism at the same time. Scrooge's heartbreaking relationship with his ill-fated sister Fan; the unflappable Bob Cratchit, played by Mervyn Johns, putting on a brave face for Tiny Tim; and perhaps more than anything else, the old humbug's reconciliation with his nephew Fred, as he embraces the daughter-in-law who reminds him of Fan, as the strains of "Barbara Allen" fill our ears. Even in the liberties it takes with Dickens' plot, there is not a single misstep. This is film magic at its best.

There's an even-handed subtlety at work here; unlike other adaptations, it never feels cartoonish, and also never becomes too dark. There's a tendency with this story to sometimes either play it too broad, or otherwise to give in to the urge to make it a full-on ghost story. Maybe Dickens meant it to be a bit grimmer than Hurst's version, but no matter; like the finest of screen adaptations, it takes the essence of the source and does something remarkable that's all its own. Something about this story has touched people for over a century and half, and this movie seems to totally understand what it is.

The film holds both wonder for a small child, with its moral lesson and flamboyant ghosts (Michael Hordern's sympathetic Jacob Marley stands out), yet it also offers much to adults--in fact, I can personally vouch that the experience of watching it changes it deepens with age. This film holds profound power over me, so much so that I find emotions welling up inside even simply writing about it.

It's usually Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life that is typically held up as the quintessential Christmas movie. And as amazing as that movie is, for me, Scrooge will always be the one, a movie that transcends the holidays to become a deep experience, not just a great Christmas movie, but a great film. In my family, it has always been a tradition to watch it, to cherish each and every scene, to grin and hold back tears in turn as every scene, every line plays out.

Charles Dickens blessed his fellow man with a tale that touches something universal in us, and this adaptation is its most perfect cinematic distillation. I encourage anyone who has never seen it to get a hold of it, and allow the awe-inspiring Alistair Sim to floor you with his spot-on screen presence and profound understanding of the character. Hold off until Christmas to see it if you like, but really, why wait?

NEXT UP: The Wrong Man (1956)


Jose Cruz said...

I remember seeing this for the first time around Christmas during my fifth grade year on the WGN channel I believe. During the entire time I couldn't leave the room, couldn't take my eyes off the screen. This was my grandparents' favorite version of A Christmas Carol and I soon found out why. Thanks for bringing up old memories, B-Sol. I'm gonna have to track this one down for this Yuletide season.

B-Sol said...

You're very welcome, Joe. It's out on DVD, but it really deserves the deluxe treatment, which it hasn't gotten yet. Also, be sure it's the original black and white and not the cheesy colorized version!

Raven said...

A beautifully written and very loving review of this wonderful film. This movie is also one that I can watch again and again, and again and again be moved to tears and cheers. We are in agreement there. However, this film can also terrorize me, as any good ghost story should, just as it did when I first viewed it as a child. The scene where Marley shows Scrooge the spirits on the street lamenting their lost ability to intercede for good always sends the hair up on the back of my neck, the cry of: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" Can make me quail just as it does to Scrooge. I truly believe this film gave us just the right amount of scare. It is is indeed a ghost story as Dickens intended.

TheShadowofthePhotographer said...

In response to B-Sol (in his/hers to Joe Monster):

If a black & white photographer might offer an observation about the "the original black and white and not the cheesy colorized version", prior to colourisation, the "original" black & white image is all too often a poor quality print. The restoration of tone (and tonal contrast) necessary as a preliminary stage for the 'sacrilege' of colourisation is therefore a valuable service to purists (who can then turn off the saturation on our TV sets and enjoy a better B&W version than we may have seen in years. TheShadowofthePhotographer